Austin does its part, and F1’s on-track product needs to match

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It’s a testament to the fever, passion and commitment of the more than 113,000 fans in attendance Sunday at Circuit of the Americas that they all stuck around for the entirety of the 56-lap, encore edition of the United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Because on pure product alone, there was a clear gap in the excitement department from other races at Austin this year.

I’ll use my past trip to Austin for the combined FIA World Endurance Championship/American Le Mans Series weekend in September as a reference point, although there have been three other major weekends at the track this year besides that.

The ALMS race Saturday featured more than 30 cars in five classes; two of the five class victories were in doubt for the last 30 to 45 minutes of the two-hour, 45 minute race.

The ALMS GT class – which features an open manufacturer grid of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari, BMW and Porsche – had all five marques in contention with a Corvette co-driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia emerging victorious over a Viper and a BMW.

Meanwhile the all-Porsche GT3 Cup GTC class witnessed an intense battle between, and this still sucks to write, the late Sean Edwards and underrated Irishman Damien Faulkner. Faulkner took the win there.

And all this occurred while the faster three prototype classes were slicing through them like butter to overtake.

Sunday for six hours, the WEC event featured a chess match between the stunning Audi and Toyota LMP1 prototypes, a three or four-car battle at any time in the lower cost LMP2 ranks, and Aston Martin sweeping the GTE categories. It wasn’t stunning at all times, certainly, but it packed its action at various points, and at various corners, throughout the day.

But here’s the kicker: more fans attended Friday practice for F1 (58,276) than the entire three-day weekend for the international sports car doubleheader (33,591). F1 may still have a ways to go to achieve more mainstream coverage in the U.S., and sports car racing’s climb is even higher.

Other weekends at COTA – the MotoGP weekend, Australian V8 Supercars/Pirelli World Challenge event and GRAND-AM race – had more moments at any points. There were a number of tweets on Sunday salivating at the idea of an IndyCar race in Austin, given how well that series’ new car races on permanent road courses.

And F1 had but perhaps two or three “moments” on Sunday. What F1 packs in spades – the glamour, the exclusivity, the spectacle of the buildup on the grid, the sheer pinnacle of technology – it cannot overcome by its current on-track product after the lights go out.

Essentially, as soon as Mark Webber lost the pole to teammate Sebastian Vettel on Saturday, the race was good as decided. Vettel’s starts are flawless and Webber, who always seems to struggle off the line, was stuck on the dirty line of the track and couldn’t put the grip down. Vettel did his usual checking out once the safety car period ended and that was that, job done for an eighth straight clinical race-winning performance we’ve come to expect.

The full-time members of the F1 press corps have already lamented how most of the field on Sunday needed to conserve their tires to cope with the unexpected high temperatures, north of 85 degrees ambient. With a one-stop race and a limited window of operation for peak performance, drivers had to either go hard early in the stint on the mediums and risk them going off, or save them for later in the stint. The hards would obviously last longer, but not offer the same pace on potential. And all that made Sunday’s Grand Prix something of a dreary, processional affair at times.

Whether it’s the conservative tire choices, or the DRS (which didn’t even get that much usage on Sunday with many gaps larger than 1 second in the DRS detection zone), or the Red Bull domination at the front of the field, a race like Sunday’s will not have done more to attract the casual American fan given the available choices of viewing (Sunday’s race conflicted with NFL football and the NASCAR season finale in Homestead).

Perhaps the uncertainty of the new 2014 regulations – where reliability may be an issue – will shake things up a bit.

But from my view here, it was only the allure of a once-a-year circus and the attraction of a simply awesome city, Austin, that as many fans have turned up this weekend as did.

The track, and the city, deserve a better show in 2014. And that includes a post-race act other than Pit Bull…

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)